A former MBA admissions director shares the 3 steps to successfully negotiating your business school tuition and saving thousands

Tuck School of Business Dartmouth 2015
What do you bring to the table? Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth/Facebook

Attending business school — or any graduate school, for that matter — is a costly endeavour.

MBAs in the US are increasingly debt burdened. The average student coming out of the country’s banner programs, including a handful of public universities, graduates more than $US65,000 in the hole — many hit the six-figure mark.

While you can offset the cost of tuition with scholarships awarded for stellar GMAT scores, a high GPA, or impressive work experience, there’s a chance you’ll still come up short.

But if you’re passionate about the program and confident the experience and degree will advance your career, consider setting up a meeting with the admissions director to negotiate your offer.

“Other than the GMAT, scholarship negotiations may be applicants’ most dreaded part of the MBA-admissions process,” Brian Precious writes in his book “Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired: Lessons from an MBA Insider.”

“Despite what some students tell me, it doesn’t have to be adversarial or stressful, and it can actually enhance your relationship with the MBA program director or admissions director,” he continued. “The key is to know whether and when to negotiate and to approach the negotiation with the right expectations and the right attitude.”

For seven years, Precious worked in MBA admissions, recruiting, and alumni relations at Purdue University, Oregon State University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned an MBA. Last year he left his post at OSU to pursue independent consulting.

Below, Precious shared with Business Insider the three steps to follow for a successful negotiation.

1. Do your homework

After you’ve been accepted to the program, find the school’s average student profile — how do you compare in terms of GMAT scores, undergraduate GPA, and work experience? Much of the scholarships awarded to students are merit-based, so if you’re above average in any of these categories you can use it as leverage, says Precious.

You should also check out the diversity breakdown. Precious says you’ll likely experience a favourable negotiation if you’re a woman or underrepresented minority. Schools are “incentivized” to put together a diverse class of students, he said, in part because it helps them learn different communication and business styles, an invaluable asset in today’s global economy.

2. Develop a logical argument — with evidence

One thing is for sure, Precious says: You won’t please them if you ask for more money because you “don’t want to graduate with debt.” Sure, that may be a huge reason, but it proves nothing of your worth.

Before you meet with the admissions director, be sure you’ve come up with hard evidence to prove you’re an asset to the school. The admissions team knows what the school can do for you in the way of connections and job prospects, so it’s up to you to lay out what you can do for them and your fellow students. Have some self-awareness about your value to the program, Precious said.

“For example, if you intend to get involved with student organisations, mention your interest in serving in a leadership role. If you have industry connections that may benefit other students, or if you have connections to other high-quality applicants, it makes sense to discuss them with the admissions director,” he further explains in his book.

And don’t forget to take a hard look at the projected cost of the program beforehand and what you can realistically afford. Then, identify any gaps and present those numbers to the school. If your parents are helping cover a portion of tuition or you’re working extra jobs to save up, make it known.

“Show them it wasn’t your first step to come to them,” Precious says.

3. Be professional and respectful

The most important step is to always act professionally and maturely, says Precious. MBA programs often track student’s interactions throughout the scholarship process, whether they’re emailing with a student ambassador, calling the receptionist, or meeting with an admissions director, and they expect the student to be positive and professional at every turn.

And if you’re putting in the work to negotiate your tuition, the team expects you to show enthusiastic interest in the program. An attitude of indifference won’t bode well, he says.

At the end of the day, MBA program directors are given a fixed pool of money to allocate among students as they see fit, Precious said, so not everyone will get a slice of the pie.

“My goal is to give the students who I believe are going to be most successful in the program that money,” he said.

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